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Written by Gary J. Arzt

Sunday, 31 August 2008

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Litto Gomez had been a liquor retailer, a pawnbroker and a jewelry store owner. He didn't have generations of Cuban tobacco growing and cigar making in his family. Hell, Litto isn't even Cuban. And yet, in 1994, Litto and his wife, Ines Lorenzo Gomez started La Flor Dominicana in Villa Gonzalez, DR and Premium Imports in Coral Gables Florida - to distribute their cigars.

Since then, La Flor Dominicana has established itself as a premier brand, known for their quality, consistency and innovation. They are one of only a handful of companies that started right before, or during, the 'cigar boom' of the '90s and not only remain in business, but have become a highly respected producer of fine premium cigars.

I was sitting and chatting with Litto in Coral Gables a few days ago, and the session took on a Q & A like tenor ... so, I decided to proceed with an interview.

I hope you'll find the results informative and enjoyable.



Gary: Litto, what was it about the cigar industry that drew you to it?

La Flor Dominicana 'A' Double Ligero
La Flor Dominicana 'A' Double Ligero
Litto: I was looking for a business. Believe me, Gary; it had nothing to do with cigars and the romance of tobacco. It was just a business. In fact, the first time I went into a tobacco warehouse, it was very unpleasant. The dust, the heat, the odors, the dirt, the mess ... I just didn't get it. But today our tobacco warehouses are so neat, orderly and clean.

Gary: You started La Flor Dominicana before the 1990s "boom" really took hold; so, at that time, in that market environment, what were you expecting to achieve with La Flor Dominicana?

Litto: I wanted to make cigars and run a business that would be successful. And, yes, I wanted to work very hard to be recognized as a great cigar maker.

Gary: Well, from the ratings; from the number of people who speak so highly about your cigars, I would say you have achieved that.

Litto: Perhaps to a degree, but we still have more to do. Every day, I strive to improve the type of cigars we make, and above all to maintain the quality that has brought us the recognition we have achieved.

Gary: You and your wife, Ines, have a true partnership, in life and in business. Can you tell me about the manner in which you have divided responsibilities in running LFD and Premium?

Litto: Being in business with your wife sucks! (Laughter)

Ines runs the sales and distribution from Premium Imports here in Coral Gables. We ship all the cigars to Premium from the Dominican Republic. They are stored here in our walk-in, and shipped from here. All the invoicing, of course, is done here as well.

I'm in charge of creating the cigars, making the cigars, growing the tobacco and I do the marketing.

The fact that Ines is in charge of distribution allows me to focus on cigar production and the farm.

Gary: Talking about marketing, do you still do all your own photography? I remember years ago you were not satisfied with the work of the photographer ... err, Bruno or Frank.

Litto: Yes. And so, I bought some books on photography and an excellent camera and lighting equipment (Gary: And a tripod that I thought could hold the Mount Palomar telescope) and started to do our ads. (Pointing to some print outs on the desk). Those are brand new shots of our new "Los Perfectos" sampler and our "Oscuro Natural Petites" in a cedar five pack.

(GJA's Note: I was smoking one of those Perfectos that Litto had given me and it was fantastic. The sheen on the wrapper made it necessary to keep my sunglasses on!)
La Flor Dominicana Los Perfectos Sampler
La Flor Dominicana Los Perfectos Sampler

Gary: Without any 'tradition' of cigar making, you proceeded to become one of the most innovative cigar makers in the industry. To some extent, 'tradition' can be 'baggage.' Give me a little insight into how you approached cigar making; and, the innovations you have made.

Litto: I have a lot of respect for tradition, but tradition is a foundation and you can improve on it.

For instance, identifying the different primings. We use different colour strings, at the farm, so we are able to ferment different primings at different temperatures. That was not done.

Collecting the leaves at the curing barns, they would be put in baskets and pushed down with their feet. That was a tradition I had to get rid of. The leaves were being destroyed in the process.

Gary: Did you always feel that you would eventually be growing your own tobacco?

Litto: Yes, I viewed it as important to have that kind of vertical integration. We wanted to produce the very finest cigars and the only way to do that is with the very finest tobaccos. And, since we grow the tobacco for ourselves, for our own use, we don't spare any expense - either of money or time to see to it that the tobacco is all that we want it to be.

Gary: Was it a question of controlling costs or controlling quality, or both, as well as enhancing profitability?

Litto: No, it had nothing to do with costs, but everything to do with quality and quality control. The farm was an opportunity that presented itself, at the right time and I jumped at the chance to grow our own tobaccos.

I had learned a great deal about tobacco, through the process of selecting and buying, but tobacco growing was a totally new world.

It was a world we needed to be in if we were to accomplish all that we wanted to do.

Gary: You've expanded the farm at La Candela, acreage wise, since you first set it up. Would you tell me a little about the impact growing your own tobacco has had on (a) the cigars you have created, and (b) the attention you have to give the farm, relative to working with agronomists, etc?

La Flor Dominicana Factory Press
La Flor Dominicana Factory Press
Litto: It has allowed me to do things I would otherwise not have been able to do. Years ago, when we first went into business, Dominican cigars were light ... airy. We were not the first, but growing Dominican wrapper, which everyone said couldn't be done, changed the other universe of Dominican cigars, and opened the way, for us, to truly full bodied cigars.

Concerning the attention I give to the farm, during the five (5) month season, I pretty much spend half a day at the farm and half in the factory. I work very closely with the agronomist, and he is another guy I have to push, to challenge. Otherwise, everything would be done the way he learned to do it and the way he has been doing it for years.

Gary: To the best of my knowledge, you have managed to maintain the price levels of cigars you started making almost a decade ago. Tell me a about your pricing philosophy?

Litto: Going back to some of our original cigars?

Gary: Do you engage in price calculations as you are creating a new cigar, say the Double Ligero line, or do you create the cigars first and then develop the pricing?

Litto: The cigar comes first. It is not about price, but about the creation and the quality we put into it. I'm not saying to myself, "I want to make a $6 cigar." We do everything to control costs, but, ultimately, the cigar determines the cost.

Gary: Have you ever developed a cigar and then had to shelve it because of the cost of manufacture, and what it would have to sell for?

Litto: No, we never have had to do that. Ines and I understand the market and the price points and we want to bring the smoker a cigar that is excellent but at a price that he can be comfortable with - and buy a lot of them. (Smiling)

Gary: When I first saw the Chisel, I assumed it was designed to permit a smoker to enjoy a 54 to 60 ring gauge cigar without dislocating their jaw. When I saw the Chiselito, I got a mixed message - it being a smaller ring gauge. What inspired you to create the Chisel; and how did you go about it?
La Flor Dominicana Chisel
La Flor Dominicana Chisel

Litto: I was driving to the factory one day and, of course, smoking a cigar. And when I looked at it, I realized that in holding it in my teeth, I had turned the end of it into a wedge - a chisel, and that was the start of it.

Ten (10) months later we had the first Chisels.

It does allow what you said, Gary, smoking a 60 ring gauge comfortably, but it is really about the natural phenomena.

Gary: In terms of rolling Chisels; is it a difficult cigar to roll?

Litto: It is different, not difficult. But, when you show something new to a roller, the first thing he believes is that it can't be done. So, first I have to show the rollers that it can be done. Once they get into it, there is never a comment, again, that 'this is difficult.' It is just the nature of rollers to want to do what they do. They are not inclined to create a new cigar.

Gary: You do some of the most well attended in-store events in the industry. How valuable do you believe they are, as part of your overall marketing efforts?

La Flor Dominicana Especiales
La Flor Dominicana Especiales
Litto: It is very important to me and to the marketing effort. It is the one opportunity I have to meet the smokers, talk to them and get their feedback. One of the things I regret is that I cannot do more of these events. I do six (6) a year; but, of course our reps, in the field, do many more. But, you know, everyone likes to meet the cigar maker, give their opinions and thoughts directly to the cigar maker. And, the events are fun.

Gary: Among your successes have been the 'Ligero', 'Double Ligero', 'Osuro Natural', 'Mysterio', and 'LG Diez'.

What do you have in the works at this point in time?

Litto: We're going to do another release of our 'A'. It will be one time, and the quantity we make will be the quantity that is ordered at the IPCPR (formerly the RTDA). We have the "Los Puros" sampler, the Oscuro Petites and Limitada III. We're also going to expand the Cameroon Cabinet line.

Gary: After fourteen (14) years in the business, has your business philosophy changed much with experience?

Litto: Not really. I do have a lot more respect for my industry and for my fellow cigar makers. And, I have been seduced by the romance that I told you was not involved in my decision to go into the cigar business.

My basic business philosophy remains the same. To make the finest cigars I can make. To be innovative and not be constrained by what has come before and to deliver a quality product at an appropriate price.

Gary: Would you encourage your son to follow you in the cigar business?

Litto: Definitely! I don't think he has any choice already. (Laughing)

Gary: I've really enjoyed this, and I am sure the readers will, Litto. Before we wrap this up, I have one more question.

If you weren't making cigars, what would you like to be doing?

Litto: (Laughing) I think I'd like to do what you do all the time; smoke cigars and write about cigars.

Gary: When that happens, I'll take another shot at being a cigar maker!

Thanks very much, Litto; it has been a very interesting and informative session.

 

Gary J. Arzt interviews Litto Gomez at the IPCPR Show

Gary J. Arzt interviews Litto Gomez at the IPCPR Show

Visit La Flor Dominicana's Website at http://www.laflordominicana.com

La Flor Dominicana Cigars Available for Online Ordering
La Flor Dominicana Coronado
La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero
La Flor Dominicana Ligero
La Flor Dominicana Mysterio
Litto Gomez Diez




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